No More Stolen Sisters

Canada’s Epidemic of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls Through the Eyes of Two People Who Lived Through It

A photograph of women walking in the annual Women’s March in Feb. 14, 2015. (flickr/Jen Castro)

Over the past four decades, nearly 1,200 Indigenous women and girls have gone missing or been murdered in Canada, according to a 2014 RCMP report. Some other estimates put that number at approximately 4,000.

The failure of various police departments around the Lower Mainland to investigate the epidemic enabled serial predators to target vulnerable women, in particular along the Highway of Tears and on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside (DTES). For years, both law enforcement officials and the public at large turned a blind eye as dozens of women wound up dead or disappeared without a trace.

How Did This Happen?

For every person who knew one of these women, there is a story that will break your heart.

Dave Dickson, a former constable with the Vancouver Police Department dedicated his entire career to helping those in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. (Ashley Hyshka)

Dave Dickson, a retired constable with the Vancouver Police Department, calls these stories “incredible” and “horrendous.” Dickson was first posted to the DTES in 1980 and chose to remain there for the duration of his 25 years in the VPD. During that time, he learned that many of the adults and children in the neighbourhood were victims of physical, mental, or emotional abuse.

“I’ve heard just about every story,” he says. “None of the women, or men for that matter, ever made a conscious decision to come to the Downtown Eastside and sell drugs or work the streets.”

Many of the men and women on the streets were known to Dickson since they were children, when he would visit them in the local daycare. He developed a rapport with members of the community, specifically empathizing with the women, as they bore the brunt of the violence he witnessed.

One of Dickson’s most difficult experiences was working with a little girl who had her first child before her 11th birthday. The baby’s biological dad was the girl’s own father, and she had also been raped by her uncle and brother.

He recalls another woman he knew from that time. Once a drug user, she chose to pursue recovery because of an investigation into her mother’s murder. The father had murdered her mother and buried her body beneath the floor of their condominium’s basement.

While the woman was in recovery, Dickson told her, “I’m so proud of you, and I’m sure your mom would be too.”

Not all of Dickson’s fellow officers shared his empathy for members of the DTES community, however. He recalls that, though the VPD’s attitude towards women and sex workers was mostly positive, some personnel viewed them as “disposable.”

Dickson recalls that the police sometimes referred to sex workers as “crack hoes” and believed that the women themselves, rather than their batterers, were to blame for the violence directed at them. These attitudes, he says, helped create a barrier of distrust between the police officers working the DTES and those living there.

Institutional Failure

During the 1990s, Dickson was the community outreach officer for the DTES, offering support to the people there, providing them with food and cigarettes, and visiting them in the hospital. Twice he attended the funerals of people who had no known loved ones. Aside from the pastor, he was the only one there.

Most importantly, he says he supported the women he reached out to by listening to them. Dickson befriended the women of the community by visiting them and learning their names, lives, and backstories.

One by one, however, his friends began vanishing without a trace.

“All of a sudden I wouldn’t see somebody,” says Dickson. “I’d wake up in the middle of the night and I’d think of somebody—a name—and I’d write it down. And when I got into work I’d check the name on the police computer. That was really telling.”

In conducting his own investigation, Dickson compiled a list of 31 women who vanished. When he filed his report on the disappearances to his superiors, he says that his concerns were met with indifference and callousness. During his first meeting with the department’s higher-ups, one inspector told him that he wasn’t going to waste police resources on a case with no bodies and no crime scene.

A month later, during a second meeting with his superiors, Dickson presented another list. This one included the names of 23 murder victims who were picked up in the DTES and later found dead in outlying areas. He argued that the murders could potentially be related, and that they “deserved to be looked at.”

According to Dickson, a senior VPD official replied, “This is bullshit. The bottom line is I’m not wasting money looking for fucking whores.”

Honouring the lives of their “stolen sisters”, Lorelei Williams and her dance troupe “Butterflies in Spirit” perform before the crowd during the 2018 Women’s March on Vancouver. (Ashley Hyshka)

“It Could’ve Been Over”

Fourteen years later, Dickson testified at the Wally Oppal Inquiry, which was tasked with determining how serial killer Robert Pickton was able to prey on the women of the DTES for decades.

Dickson recalled thinking that if the VPD had taken the investigation and threat of an active serial killer seriously from the beginning, lives could have been saved.

A woman named Lynn Ellingsen reported seeing a body on Pickton’s farm, but when authorities went to investigate, she recanted. Dickson says that the woman “shut down” because of the behaviour of the detective who questioned her. Later, he says, that same detective commented that Ellingsen “was just an unreliable crack hoe.”

After that failed interview, 15 more women turned up dead. Dickson believes that, had the interview been conducted properly, the police could have executed a search warrant on the property and potentially brought an early end to the Pickton killings.

Right then, he says, “it could’ve been over.”

Dickson was involved in the inquiry because, after being rebuffed by his superiors, he leaked his report on the missing women to Global News. During his four-day testimony, he said that the epidemic wasn’t the result of a lack of investigations and police manpower. Rather, it was fuelled by a lack of communication amongst law enforcement officials, coupled with the negative attitude that some VPD officials felt towards the community.

During the inquiry, Dickson learned that when he filed his missing persons report in 1998, the department executive thought he had developed Stockholm syndrome for those living on the DTES, and that he had “gone to the other side.”

“I didn’t realize it was about sides,” says Dickson. “I said, ‘I didn’t join the department to take sides—you’re talking about people and women.’”

“You get close to the people [in the DTES] and everybody tells you ‘You shouldn’t get close,’” he adds. “I mean, I can’t help it. I crossed that line years ago.”

The VPD did not respond to The Runner’s request for comment.

Lost Loved Ones

While Dickson spent the summer of 1998 trying to get the VPD to launch an investigation into the murders and disappearances, Lorelei Williams and her family were experiencing the ramifications of the police’s failure first-hand.

Since before she was born, Lorelei’s family has been surrounded by violence. Her aunt, Belinda Williams, has been missing since 1978. Her cousin, Tanya Holyk, disappeared in 1996, and in 2002 Tanya’s DNA was discovered on Robert Pickton’s farm.

Lorelei found herself thrust into the forefront of Canada’s epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. A combination of colonialism, racism, and sexism let a national crisis go unaddressed for years, and has silenced the voices of the families who have suffered. Lorelei is seeking justice not only for those families, but for herself.

“That’s why I do the work that I do,” she says. “Violence has been in my family forever—with our people.”

Lorelei was born two years after her aunt’s disappearance, and that loss has followed her throughout her life. After Belinda’s family reported her disappearance, Lorelei says that the case wasn’t taken seriously until the Pickton investigation began years later. Even then, because she wasn’t a drug user or sex worker, Belinda’s disappearance was dismissed.

“I saw what it did to them,” says Lorelei. “To this day, whenever my family speaks of her, they shake. Her children miss her. My mom missed her.”

Tanya never arrived at a family event held in 1996. Though it was hidden from Lorelei at the time, her cousin was struggling with addiction, which Lorelei says “had a strong hold on her.”

It was around this time that the Williams family was confronted with another tragedy. Unbeknownst to her family, written on Dave Dickson’s original missing persons report was the name Tanya Holyk.

The trauma caused by Tanya’s disappearance led Lorelei to drop out of school, and when her missing person file was closed after one month, Tanya’s mother Dorothy was devastated. After Tanya’s DNA was found on the Pickton farm in 2002, the Wally Oppal Inquiry revealed that the police initially believed that she had disappeared not because she was the victim of a serial killer, but because she was a “coke head” who wanted to “run away” and party, even though she had an infant child.

The Crown tried and convicted Pickton for six murders. To avoid burdening the jury, the remaining 20 charges were stayed. One of those cases was Tanya’s.

“There was no justice for her,” says Lorelei. “I still kind of feel that way.”

While she says she understands the Crown’s decision, she wishes Pickton could face trial for Tanya’s murder.

According to a CBC report, the remains and DNA of 33 women were found on Pickton’s farm.

Following the disappearance of her aunt Belinda, and the murder of her cousin Tanya, Lorelei Williams is now an advocate seeking justice for Canada’s missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. (Ashley Hyshka)

A Path to Healing

Through song and dance, Lorelei has found some measure of peace.

In 2012 she created Butterflies in Spirit, a dance troupe that seeks to honour missing and murdered indigenous women, including her cousin and aunt. The troupe’s first performance was held in Downtown Vancouver in 2012, blocking off the streets of Georgia and Granville to protest the failures of the Wally Oppal Inquiry.

Her mother died five days before their first performance, so Lorelei was faced with the decision of whether to go through with holding the event.

In the end, she thought, “My mom would want me to do this.”

Though she thought it was going to be a one-time performance, other women who wanted to celebrate and honour their missing and murdered loved ones approached Lorelei with interest in joining the troupe. People who don’t want to sing or dance, but still feel inclined to be a part of their work, can receive a T-shirt from the group with their loved one’s face on it. According to Lorelei, people tend to “burst into tears” when they receive it.

“I didn’t realize how healing that was,” she says, about the therapeutic effects of her work with Butterflies in Spirit.

At the behest of Indigenous families and communities, the Government of Canada created the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls in September 2016. According to its website, the inquiry’s mandate is “to examine and report on the systemic causes of all forms of violence against Indigenous women and girls in Canada by looking at patterns and underlying factors.”

Last year, the inquiry held hearings in eight provinces and territories, and it is expected to hold two more in 2018. Since its formation, however, it has been plagued by delays, staff resignations, and outcries from victims’ loved ones who have accused the inquiry of miscommunication and disorganization, according to a CTV News article. A final report is expected to be issued by the end of the year.

“The inquiry is hanging on just by a little thread …. It breaks my heart. I want it to be successful,” says Lorelei. “We need this to be successful …. Our women and girls’ lives depend on this inquiry.”

Though she initially wanted to get a bachelor’s degree in business tourism and management, Lorelei later realized that her passion for helping people was her vocation in life. These days, she’s enrolled in Indigenous justice studies at the Native Education College, not far from the DTES. As part of her work, she supports the families of missing and murdered Indigenous women, as well as girls and women in the DTES. She also fosters relationships between women in the community and the police.

“It’s Indigenous women and girls I need to be helping,” says Lorelei. “We have so much healing to do.”